Wednesday, September 13, 2023

INDYCAR: Graham Rahal is only retiree from opening-lap melee at Laguna Seca

PHOTO: Yahoo! Autos

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Graham Rahal finished last for the 11th time in his NTT IndyCar Series career in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca when his #15 iPacket Honda crashed out of the race without completing any of the race’s 95 laps.

The finish was Rahal’s first since the first Iowa race, six races ago. Across IndyCar Series history, it was the 16th for the #15, the 224th for damage and the 109th for Honda.

Rahal’s rollercoaster ride of a year has continued clear through to the season finale. A sixth-place start at the second Iowa race turned into a rather pedestrian 20th-place finish. Nashville was a quiet race as he started and finished in 15th. Then, on the Indianapolis Road Course, the 15 car claimed the pole amidst a burst of speed for the entire organization, but Scott Dixon played a superior strategy and managed tires better in a race that featured a prolonged green-flag run to end the race. A long-awaited next win for Rahal slipped out of his hands once again as he stood on the second step of the podium. It was back to the doldrums at Gateway, as the team’s oval woes flared up again with a 21st-place start and a finish that was just barely inside the Top 20. Portland almost felt like whiplash, as Rahal won his second pole in three races and Juri Vips slotted into the sister #30, hoping to give that car a bit of life. However, multiple strategy errors saw a strong race fade to 12th, with Rahal ripping his crew over the radio for the missteps at the conclusion of the race.

On top of these highs and lows, Rahal now finds himself unsigned for 2024. Most believe it is merely a matter of formalities before he announces an extension to remain at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but in the grand scheme of things, rumblings that Graham would call it quits following the season were prevalent as recently as June. Where things go from here remain to be seen. For the finale at Laguna Seca, Rahal welcomed back iPacket, a sponsor that previously appeared on his car at Gateway in 2022. 

While there were no entry list changes for Monterey, it did mark the end of a number of eras. Helio Castroneves will step back from full-time racing to become a part-owner of current team Meyer Shank Racing, still driving the Indy 500 in the future. Felix Rosenqvist will depart Arrow McLaren at season's end to replace Castroneves. Taking Rosenqvist’s spot will be David Malukas, who continued the run of surprising series debut tenures for Dale Coyne Racing. Romain Grosjean concluded a frustrating period at Andretti Autosport, and Marcus Ericsson will leave his Chip Ganassi Racing slate to take his place. Devlin DeFrancesco is another driver that will be leaving his ride with an uncertain future. Finally, Ryan Hunter-Reay indicated that he will not return to Ed Carpenter Racing after serving as a half-season replacement for Conor Daly.

Sting Ray Robb, another driver whose plans for next year are not set in stone, was slowest in the opening practice session with a fast lap of 1:09.1, over a second and a half off Colton Herta in a "throwback" scheme honoring father Bryan's victory in 1998. It was still much faster than the previous Laguna Seca pavement, which was redone since last year. Simona de Silvestro’s anchor lap in 2022 first practice was a lap of 1:14.0, nearly a five-second difference. Pato O’Ward was the slowest driver in practice, sitting with a best lap of 1:09.4 after he had an off in turn 3 and went all the way to the tire barriers early in the session, completing only six laps. Rahal was seventh in both practices, but still played second-fiddle within RLL. Christian Lundgaard was on point for second practice and stole many of the headlines surrounding that.

In qualifying, Hunter-Reay suffered an off, causing a red flag in Group 1. He was given lap deletion penalties as such, and his best mark of 1:11.06 was by far the slowest. Castroneves also spun during qualifying, the first of several off-track incidents for him on the weekend. He did not record an official lap, placing him at the bottom of Group 2. Rahal was seventh in Group 2, missing out on advancing to the Fast 12 by a mere .07 seconds to Will Power.

Despite some grid penalties for engine changes, Castroneves was still the final starter on the grid for Sunday’s race. At the initial start in the hairpin, Christian Lundgaard got into Scott McLaughlin, causing both to get sideways. Further back in the field, Marcus Armstrong turned Rahal sideways in the middle of the corner, causing the 15 to spear Vips. Rahal was then t-boned by a slow Josef Newgarden while entering the gravel. While not immediately apparent, the damage was significant, as Rahal was quickly out of the car and had a conversation with Vips while the young Estonian was still in his car.

As the race trudged on with numerous incidents, attrition began to pile up. After being involved in multiple incidents throughout the race, Tom Blomqvist finished 27th when he piled into a restart stackup. It was his third career bottom-five finish in only three IndyCar starts. Kyle Kirkwood and Vips were the next finishers, both running at the end after incurring damage but returning to the track. Colton Herta rounded out the Bottom Five as he incurred gearbox damage and was then punted into the sand after completing 80 laps.

2023 LASTCAR IndyCar Series Champion – Benjamin Pedersen
Entering the race, Sting Ray Robb was the only driver in contention for Benjamin Pedersen's LASTCAR title, and Robb could only claim it with a last-place finish. While both drivers tallied at least 13 Bottom Ten finishes on the year, both finished outside the Bottom Ten. Pedersen was involved in multiple incidents throughout the day - run over by Scott McLaughlin early and spun by Will Power late - but still recorded the second-best finish of his season in 16th. Robb had an incredibly quiet race and finished 12th, his best finish of his rookie season by four spots. With the standings remaining unchanged, Pedersen recorded the 2023 LASTCAR IndyCar Series championship by virtue of tiebreaker on bottom-five finishes, 10 to 8.

27) #15-Graham Rahal / 0 laps / crash
26) #60-Tom Blomqvist / 61 laps / crash
25) #27-Kyle Kirkwood / 65 laps / running
24) #30-Juri Vips / 71 laps / running
23) #26-Colton Herta / 80 laps / crash

1st) Honda (12)
2nd) Chevrolet (5)

1st) Dale Coyne Racing (5)
2nd) A.J. Foyt Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (3)
3rd) Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren, Juncos Hollinger Racing (1)


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